Remember a few columns back when I said that Twitter, in the case of Heath Ledger’s death, was good at spreading the news, but wasn’t good at gathering it?

Well, on Monday there was a great example of social media, and Twitter in particular, being both a great breaking news source and a viral carrier. A 7.9 magnitude quake hit China – 92 km northwest of Chengdu – mid-afternoon local time on Monday. It has killed at least 9,000 as I write this. The first word most of us in North America got of the quake was from Robert Scoble’s twitter feed. We saw:

“@dtan just reported an earthquake in Beijing. Wonder how large it is? Off to check out USGS site.”

Scoble wrote that early Monday morning, California time. Dtan is the twitter name of a programmer working in Beijing. Scoble immediately reposted dtan’s message and, as his post suggests, zipped over to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) site to see if he could get information on the seismic event’s epicentre and strength.

To his surprise, there was nothing about the quake there. In fact, Scoble and dtan beat the USGS to the punch by about three minutes. And, they beat CNN to the story by an hour. It appears that while some phone lines were damaged by the quake, the Internet was working fine.

So not just dtan, but dozens of other Chinese citizens shaken by the quake posted their experiences, live, to Twitter:

“scribeoflight: earthquake not sure how big, maybe four?
frankyu: earthquake in beijing?
peanutbrittle25: I felt an earthquake
kencloset: is getting dizzy by an earthquake :-S
maoxian: Just felt a bad earthquake in Beijing 14:36
casperpdj: jesus! serious earthquake here in Chengdu!
imagethief: earthquake. Evacuting Kerry Center.
adinobro: I just survived by first earthquake :-)”

Meanwhile, other folks with cellphones and digital cameras were sending images and videos up to the Web. And, of course, the Beijing blogging community was all over the event.

More mainstream media weren’t left out. A host of National Public Radio’s All Things Considered, Melissa Block, was on assignment recording an interview in Chengdu when the quake struck. But, it was social media that was the star of the show this time.

Why? Partly, of course, because the Internet didn’t go down and partly because Chengdu is a Chinese silicon valley with outposts of IBM, Micro and Intel centred there. But, it’s also because mobile technology and social media like Twitter are reaching enough technorati that, if the network conditions are right, they can cover themselves (and think to do it). Plus, Robert Scoble, who follows (and is followed by) thousands of netizens on Twitter can serve as a strong enough news vector that he becomes a small wire service for all those citizen stringers a half a world away.

In some ways, the social media disaster coverage this time was a bit of a perfect storm of geeks and technology. But, it does suggest a time when disintermediated coverage of a local/global disaster will be the norm. It makes sense. We have the tools for news gathering, we have the means of broadcast and the means of aggregation (RSS feeds and sites like Global Voices) and we have crowdsourced news ranking from

Is that enough to allow us to make sense of the world, even in the moment disaster strikes? I’m not sure, but I am certain we are closer to that today than we were this same time yesterday.


Wayne MacPhail

Wayne MacPhail has been a print and online journalist for 25 years. He was the managing editor of Hamilton Magazine and was a reporter and editor at The Hamilton Spectator until he founded Southam InfoLab,...